ISAIAH 7:1-9. THE CONTEXT
These verses tell the story of Ahaz, king of Judah, who feels threatened by Rezin of Aram, and Pekah of Israel (see 2 Kings 16 and 2 Chronicles 28 for the full story).
• ARAM is located north of Israel in the vicinity of Damascus. Rezin is king of Aram.
• ISRAEL is the Northern Kingdom, occupying land that will be known in Jesus’ day as Samaria and Galilee. It is made up of ten tribes that refused to submit to the authority of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, after Solomon’s death in 922 B.C. (1 Kings 12). Jeroboam was Israel’s first king. Now Pekah is their king.
• JUDAH is the Southern Kingdom, made up of the two remaining tribes, Benjamin and Judah. The capitol is Jerusalem, and the king is Ahaz.
• ASSYRIA is located in Mesopotamia, about 400-500 miles (650-800 km) northeast of Judah. It is the dominant power and threatens all lesser nations such as Aram, Israel, and Judah.
Rezin (of Aram) and Pekah (of Israel) are determined to forge alliances that will allow them to resist Assyrian domination. They asked Ahaz to join their alliance, but Ahaz refused because of his fear of Assyria. In response, Rezin and Pekah mounted an attack against Jerusalem that failed (v. 1). Rezin and Pekah succeeded, however, in frightening Ahaz and the people of Israel, whose hearts “trembled… as the trees of the forest tremble with the wind” (v. 2).
Yahweh called Isaiah to assure Ahaz that he had nothing to fear, because Rezin and Pekah would fail in their attempt to attack Jerusalem (vv. 3-8)—implying that Yahweh will prevent them from defeating Jerusalem. The only thing that Yahweh requires of Ahaz is that he trusts Yahweh’s promise. Isaiah further warned Ahaz, ” If you will not believe, surely you shall not be established” (v. 9).
The events of this narrative take place about 733 B.C.
ISAIAH 7:10-13. ASK A SIGN OF YAHWEH
10Yahweh spoke again to Ahaz, saying, 11“Ask a sign of Yahweh your God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.”
12But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, neither will I tempt Yahweh.”
13He said, “Listen now, house of David. Is it not enough for you to try the patience of men, that you will try the patience of my God also?”
“Yahweh spoke again to Ahaz” (v. 10). It isn’t clear whether Yahweh speaks to Ahaz directly or through the prophet Isaiah. It is clear, however, that the message comes from Yahweh and bears Yahweh’s authority, however delivered.
“Ask a sign of Yahweh your God” (v. 11a). We think of the Old Testament God as leaning heavily toward judgment and the New Testament God as leaning heavily toward grace. This invitation by Yahweh, however, shows the Old Testament Yahweh as a God of the second chance—a God of grace. Yahweh sees that Ahaz is tempted to trust Assyria, so he offers Ahaz a sign to make it possible for Ahaz to believe in Yahweh.
Signs are common in both the Old and New Testaments. The rainbow was a sign to Noah of God’s promise not to destroy the world by flood again (Genesis 9:12-17). The blood of the Passover lamb was a sign to Israel that God would exempt Israel from the death of the firstborn (Exodus 12:7-13). The angelic fire was a sign to Gideon that he had found favor with the Lord (Judges 6:17-22). In the New Testament, the miracles of Jesus are often called signs, particularly in the Gospel of John (John 2:11, 23; 3:2; 4:54; 6:2, 14; 7:31; 9:16; 11:47; 12:18, 37; 20:30). God/Jesus provided signs to give people assurance and to help them to believe (John 20:30-31).
“ask it either in the depth, or in the height above“ (v. 11b). Sheol is the abode of the dead, thought to be located in the depths of the earth (Deuteronomy 32:22). Heaven is the dwelling place of God, thought to be located high above the earth. When Yahweh invites Ahaz to ask for a sign as “in the depth, or in the height above,” he is offering Ahaz carte blanche—full discretionary power. Ahaz can ask for any sign that he can imagine. He can ask God to hide the sun—or to cause water to spring up from the desert sands—or he can ask for a healing miracle. He can ask for any sign that, when received, will convince him of Yahweh’s power and faithfulness.
However, if Ahaz names a sign and Yahweh performs that sign, then Ahaz will have to acknowledge Yahweh’s power and ally himself with Yahweh. This invitation by Yahweh, then, is as much a test as it is an invitation. Will Ahaz accept the invitation? If so, will he give Yahweh his allegiance once Yahweh performs the sign? By inviting Ahaz to name a sign, Yahweh is putting him in a position where he must show his true colors—faithful to Yahweh or not.
“But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, neither will I tempt Yahweh'” (v. 12). Although not faithful to Yahweh, Ahaz is sufficiently familiar with Hebrew scripture to quote Deuteronomy 6:16, which says, “You shall not tempt Yahweh your God, as you tempted him at Massah.” This refers to an incident recounted in Exodus 17:1-7 where the people of Israel quarreled with Moses because they had no water to drink. Moses responded, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people persisted, so God instructed Moses to strike a rock with his staff so that water would come out of the rock. Moses struck the rock as instructed, and God provided water as promised. That account concludes by saying that Moses “called the name of the place Massah, and Meribah, because the children of Israel quarreled, and because they tested Yahweh, saying, ‘Is Yahweh among us, or not?'” (v. 7).
So Ahaz’s response reflects at least a superficial knowledge of the scripture and seems to obey the requirement of Deuteronomy 6:16 not to test God. However, there are two problems:
The FIRST problem is that Ahaz fails to take into account the difference between his situation and that of the Israelites at Massah. There the Israelites quarreled with Moses because they had lost faith in Yahweh’s providence. They demanded action, not only as a way of obtaining water, but also as a way of reassuring themselves that Yahweh had not abandoned them to die in the wilderness. That is why Moses spoke of their action as testing God, and it is that sort of testing that is prohibited by Deuteronomy 6:16.
The situation for Ahaz is quite different. The initiative for this test was not his but Yahweh’s. Ahaz has not demanded a test, but Yahweh has offered a test. Yahweh would not offer the test if he did not want Ahaz to name a test. Therefore the Deuteronomy 6:16 prohibition is moot—does not apply.
The SECOND problem is that Ahaz is merely using the Deuteronomy 6 prohibition as an excuse for his reluctance to name a sign. The real reason he doesn’t want to name a sign is that he has made up his mind to ally himself with Assyria against Rezin and Pekah, so he doesn’t want to name a sign that will force him to ally himself with Yahweh. He trusts Assyria instead of Yahweh, and has no intention of changing his mind. It is as simple as that.
Like the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness, Ahaz is able quote scripture to further his purposes. Like the devil, he has no intention of becoming faithful to the one who is revealed in those scriptures.
“He said, ‘Listen now, house of David'” (v. 13a). In verses 10-11, the Lord addressed Ahaz. Now Isaiah addresses “house of David.” This is a significant shift, because “house of David” refers to the Davidic dynasty of which Ahaz is a part—and to the covenant that Yahweh established with David much earlier (2 Samuel 7).
“Both Delitzsch and Smith see Ahaz’s rejection in v. 12 as the turning point in the fortunes of the house of David. That resolute act of unfaith signaled an abandonment of God by the dynasty and opened the door for its eventual destruction” (Oswalt, 206). (NOTE: The Smith referenced here is G. W. Smith in the Expositor’s Bible. It is not the Smith referenced in the bibliography below.)
“Is it not enough for you to try the patience of men, that you will try the patience of my God also?” (v. 13b). It is not just Ahaz, but the house of David, that has wearied both humans and God. The Davidic line has produced kings both good (2 Kings 15:32-34) and bad (1 Kings 16:30; 2 Kings 8:18, 27). Ahaz is simply the current disappointment.
A faithless ruler does weary mortals—people whose lives are profoundly affected by the ruler’s actions and policies. We see that in nation after nation today where tyrants rule oppressively, using their power to destroy people rather than to help them. There is no doubt that Ahaz has wearied Isaiah, who has tried to hard to help Ahaz to discover faith. Ahaz has also wearied Yahweh (see also Micah 2:7).
ISAIAH 7:14-16. THE VIRGIN WILL CONCEIVE, AND BEAR A SON
14Therefore the Lord (Hebrew: adonai) himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin (Hebrew: almah) will conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15He shall eat butter and honey when he knows to refuse the evil, and choose the good. 16For before the child knows to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land whose two kings you abhor shall be forsaken.
“Therefore the Lord (adonai) himself will give you a sign” (v. 14a). Since Ahaz has refused to choose a sign, the Lord will give him a sign of the Lord’s choosing.
In most cases, the book of Isaiah uses the Hebrew YHWH (Yahweh) to refer to God. This is the “I am who I am” name that God used when Moses asked God’s name at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14). In this instance, however, the prophet uses adonai, which Israelites use to avoid the risk of profaning God’s holy name.
“Behold, the virgin (almah) will conceive, and bear a son” (v. 14b). This verse is quoted in Matthew 1:23, where the Greek word parthenos clearly means virgin.
The LXX (the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament) used the Greek word parthenos to translate almah in this verse. We should note that there is another Hebrew word, bethulah, that is a more exact parallel to parthenos (Scott, 218).
Following the lead of the LXX, the King James Version translated the Hebrew word almah in Isaiah 7:14 as “virgin.” The Revised Standard Version (RSV) caused quite a stir in 1952 when it translated almah as “young woman.” Many Christians accused RSV translators of denying the virgin birth, even though the RSV translates parthenos as “virgin” in Matthew 1:23.
The controversy was exacerbated by certain liberal clergy who both (1) preferred the RSV and (2) either denied the virgin birth or said that it wasn’t important to their faith. It was further exacerbated by the fact that an early popular edition of the RSV was published with a red cover instead of the traditional black cover that people associated with the Bible. That small indiscretion hardened the suspicion that the RSV was somehow subversive.
Today, many or most scholars favor translating almah “young woman,” but large numbers of conservative Christians strongly defend “virgin.” The New International Version (NIV), favored by many conservative Christians, uses “virgin” in this verse. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), favored by most mainline Protestant churches today, uses “young woman.” The RSV, NRSV, and NIV all translate parthenos as “virgin” in Matthew 1:23.
Watts does a brief study of the use of almah in several Old Testament verses, and concludes: “This word study suggests that the common meaning of almah is a young woman who is sexually mature…. But it had two different and contrasting semantic implications that provide an invitation to double entendre. The one implies the spotless candidate for marriage. The other implies a type of available sexual partner not condoned by Yahwistic norms or the Law. It is difficult to find a word in English that is capable of the same range of meaning. ‘Virgin’ is too narrow, while ‘young woman’ is too broad” (Watts, 136).
Young suggests that damsel or maiden might be the best English equivalents to the Hebrew word almah, but then says, “Yet even these words may not be precise equivalents, for whereas they could possibly refer to married women, ‘almah does not do so. For these reasons it may be wisest, after all, to render ‘almah in English by ‘virgin'” (Young, 287).
However, many or most scholars today would translate almah as “young woman” and would deal with the issue of the virgin birth on other grounds.
Allow me to state a confession, a conviction, and an observation here:
• First, the CONFESSION. I do not know whether we should translate almah as “virgin” or “young woman.” After reading a number of scholars on the subject, I find that some prefer “virgin” and others prefer “young woman.” Some insist on “virgin,” a conviction that I believe to be based more on their commitment to the doctrine of the virgin birth as on their study of the word almah. I am uncomfortable with that sort of dogma-driven Biblical interpretation.
• Second, the CONVICTION. I believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. My belief is based on the clear statement of the New Testament that Mary was a virgin (Matthew 1:23; Luke 1:26-35) and that the Holy Spirit came upon Mary and the power of the Most High overshadowed her, so that the child born of her was holy—the very Son of God (Luke 1:35). Since my belief is based on these very clear New Testament texts, it is unaffected by the controversy over the use of “virgin” or “young woman” in the Isaiah text. Therefore, I would call for belief in the virgin birth because of the New Testament witness, and I would call for charity between those who favor “virgin” and those who favor “young woman” in the Isaiah text.
• Third, an OBSERVATION. There was no controversy in the New Testament church regarding the virgin birth of Jesus. Early Christians apparently received without question the witness of Matthew 1 and Luke 2 that Mary was a virgin, and John alludes to it (John 1:14; 3:16; 1 John 4:9). Neither Paul nor the other authors of the New Testament ever mentions it. While Paul deals with all sorts of church controversies, he neither corrects churches on this matter—nor feels it necessary to expand their understanding of the virgin birth—nor feels it important to emphasize the virgin birth. In other words, Matthew 1:23 and Luke 1:26-35 make it clear that Jesus was born of a virgin, but beyond that the New Testament is essentially silent on the matter. We would do well to recover the posture of the New Testament on this matter.
We must also deal with another question here. Does this verse predict the birth of a child during the lifetime of Ahaz, or is this a messianic prophecy that points to the birth of Jesus. Scholars are divided on this matter, but it seems unnecessary to choose one or the other. I believe that Isaiah intended to speak of a child who would be born within a very short time. Matthew, however, interprets this verse as a messianic prophecy. I believe both to be true. This is a sign for Ahaz, as this verse says that it is—and it is also a messianic prophecy, as Matthew says it is. Even if Isaiah understood it only in the first sense, God sometimes inspires people to say things that reveal truths beyond their understanding—truths to be fully revealed only later. I believe that to be the case here.
“and shall call his name Immanuel” (v. 14c). The Hebrew immanu means “with us,” and el is a word for God, so Immanuel (also spelled Emmanuel) means “God with us.” In the Bible, a number of people are given names that have a message from God embedded in them. Isaiah means “Yahweh is salvation.” Isaiah named one son Shear-jashub, which means “a remnant shall return” and another son Maher-shalal-hash-baz, which means “The spoil speeds, the prey hastes.”
Achtemeier notes that the word Immanuel is used again in Isaiah 8:8, where Yahweh is pronouncing judgment on Judah. She concludes that, while “God with us” is positive for the faithful, it can be dangerous for the unfaithful. She notes that we usually think of “God with us” as comforting, but suggests that we approach Immanuel with the humility of sinners who have nothing to offer God except our repentance (Achtemeier, 312-313).
“He shall eat butter and honey” (v. 15a). The precise meaning of “curds and honey” is uncertain. It might mean “good food” (Goldingay, 64), or it might mean “the first solid food after mother’s milk” (Tucker, NIB, 112). However, verse 22 speaks of eating curds and honey in a context that suggests devastation—a movement backward from an agricultural to a pastoral economy (see vv. 23-25). “In light of the negative use of this same terminology in 7:21-22, it is better to interpret curds and honey in 7:15 as a sign that this son will live in a time of deprivation” (Smith, 214).
“when he knows to refuse the evil, and choose the good” (v. 15b). This phrase gives Ahaz a time-frame within which he can expect these events to happen. The question is how old a child must be to know how to refuse the evil and choose the good. Brueggemann says that it is two years when “reckoned in terms of childhood development” (Brueggemann, Texts for Preaching, 29).
However, there are other measures. A child “was expected to learn the Scriptures at five, the Mishnah at ten, and to fulfill the whole law at thirteen” (Bromiley, 538). Today Jewish boys are obligated to observe the commandments at age thirteen (girls at age twelve) (http://www.jewfaq.org/barmitz.htm). Therefore, the time frame in which Ahaz can expect to see Yahweh’s sign could be as little as two years or as much as thirteen years. The point is that Ahaz can expect relief in a relatively short time.
“For before the child knows to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land whose two kings you abhor shall be forsaken” (v. 16). The two kings are Rezin and Pekah. As noted above, Ahaz is in dread of them because they have attacked Jerusalem once and can be expected to do so again. Isaiah is reassuring Ahaz that within the next thirteen years, Yahweh will deal with Rezin and Pekah so that they no longer pose a threat.
This, in fact, happened. Aram was destroyed three years later, and Assyria defeated Israel and sent its people into exile thirteen years later—in 722/721 B.C. (Motyer, 78).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume One: A-D –Revised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979)
Brueggemann, Walter, Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 1-39 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Goldingay, John, New International Biblical Commentary: Isaiah (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001)
Motyer, J. Alec, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Isaiah, Vol. 18 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999)
Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986)
Scott, R.B.Y. (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 1-39); Kilpatrick, G.G.D., (Exposition of Isaiah 1-39),The Interpreter’s Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956)
Seitz, Christopher R., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993)
Smith, Gary V., The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39 (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2007)
Tucker, Gene M., The New Interpreters Bible: Isaiah, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Watts, John D. W., Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 1-33 (Dallas: Word Books, 1985)
Young, Edward J., The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-18, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965)
Copyright 2007, 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan